The demolition of the gorgeous old Penn Station in 1963 to make way for the construction of Madison Square Garden remains one of the country's great civic tragedies. Now, New York is finally trying to rectify its mistakes: the city council has given MSG 10 years to vacate the premises.
The Madison Square Garden Company's 50-year permit to operate the arena expired earlier this year, but it has been lobbying hard for a renewal in perpetuity, sending the likes of Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, and Spike Lee to argue the case for staying. But the city has granted only a 10-year permit, after which the Garden will be knocked down for the redevelopment of Penn Station.
In the labyrinthine process of city politics, few things have ever been so agreed-upon. The local community board voted 36-0. A zoning subcommitte voted 7-0. The Committee on Land Use voted 18-1. And yesterday the City Council, the last stop to making it official, voted 47-1 for the eviction heads-up. Christine Quinn, City Council speaker and mayoral candidate, said
“This is the first step in finding a new home for Madison Square Garden and building a new Penn Station that is as great as New York and suitable for the 21st century. This is an opportunity to reimagine and redevelop Penn Station as a world-class transportation destination.”
It's horrible timing for James Dolan and MSG, which is months away from completing a nearly $1 billion renovation to bring the cramped, seedy megalith into something resembling the 21st century.
The Garden, the fourth site to bear the name, earned icon status not by dint of beauty (the brown brutalist radial symmetry screams its era) or even of history: in 45 years of hosting the Knicks and Rangers it has seen only three championship banners raised, and the boxing matches that earned it the "Mecca" nickname have long packed up for Las Vegas. But if you call something "The World's Most Famous Arena" enough times, you start to believe it—and maybe others do too.
The 10-year notice is not a death sentence. When the permit comes up again, MSG will have the right to re-apply, and it's impossible to predict what New York's financial and political situations will look like in a decade's time. But there's little sadness over the end of a midtown eyesore and of a train station suitable only for C.H.U.D.s. In the '60s, the city chose function over form and wound up with neither. Perhaps they'll get it right this time.